By JOHN BURNETT
Tribune-Herald staff writer
The attorney for a former mortician accused of trying to kill a downtown Hilo coin merchant in a brutal hammer attack almost two years ago sparred verbally with the victim during trial Tuesday in Hilo Circuit Court.
Defense attorney William Heflin attempted to establish during cross-examination that coin dealer Donald Nigro showed up for a deal with Robert Diego with less money than had been agreed upon for a collection of rare Hawaiian coins.
Heflin said that Nigro drove Diego from Hilo Shopping Center to Nigro’s Hualalai Street apartment instead of Nigro’s Kilauea Avenue store, then tried to sexually proposition Diego before Diego hit Nigro numerous times in the head with a hammer in self-defense.
The 70-year-old Diego is charged with attempted second-degree murder, first-degree robbery and first-degree assault for the June 13, 2011, attack in Nigro’s downtown Hilo apartment.
The 67-year-old Nigro said he was talking on his cellphone as he and Diego went up the stairs to Nigro’s apartment, and after they entered the apartment and Nigro was putting away the phone, Diego touched him on the shoulder and then hit him from behind with the hammer.
“You told Mr. Diego in the car that the deal had changed, correct? You told him instead of a $34,000 cashier’s check and $1,000 in cash, you had a cashier’s check for $18,000, correct?” Heflin asked.
“Malarkey. Absolute malarkey,” replied Nigro, who had previously testified that an $18,000 cashier’s check, $1,000 in cash and some jewelry contained in Nigro’s fanny pack was the
deal he and Diego had agreed upon for the coins.
“When you finished this telephone conversation, you dropped your phone, turned around and groped Mr. Diego. Correct?” Heflin queried.
“To begin with, I would never drop a telephone. That is moronic. I’m surprised you’d even ask a silly question like that. I didn’t drop my phone. I certainly didn’t do anything to him,” Nigro said.
“… So after you groped Mr. Diego, he said what?” Heflin continued. At that point, Deputy Prosecutor Darien Nagata objected and Judge Greg Nakamura sustained the objection.
“So Mr. Diego didn’t step back and yell, ‘What the F are you doing?’” Heflin asked.
“No, nothing like that happened. I never touched him,” Nigro responded.
“You didn’t punch him in the chest and try to grope his groin area again?”
“You didn’t actually proposition Mr. Diego?”
“No. Look at the ugly bastard. Why would I touch him?”
“So your answer is no, because he’s an ugly bastard?” Heflin responded.
“No,” Nigro answered.
“… So Mr. Diego didn’t try to defend himself with the hammer after you sexually propositioned him and groped him?”
“None of that happened.”
Nigro has said that Diego had approached him several times over the years with a list of rare Hawaiian coins he claimed to have, but that Nigro had never actually seen the coins. He said that Diego had backed out of proposed sales on several occasions.
Heflin said in his opening statement that Diego had given Nigro the coins to have them appraised before the deal was supposed to have taken place. He placed into evidence a form Nigro signed a couple of hours after the attack, while in the hospital, giving police permission to search Nigro’s car and the front of Nigro’s apartment, but not Nigro’s bedroom, which has a security screen door similar to one found in businesses.
“You gave the police permission to search your car, the part of your apartment where the attack took place, but no other part of your apartment, correct?” Heflin asked.
“Everything happened within 10 feet of the door, so that is correct.” Nigro replied.
“(The bedroom) would have been where you would have kept the coins, correct?”
“I never got the coins; I don’t know why you keep harping on this. I never had ‘em.”
Diego, who owned Memorial Mortuary, faces a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole if convicted of attempted murder. He would have to serve a minimum of 15 years in prison because Nigro is older than 60.
Memorial Mortuary closed in 2006 after Diego pleaded no contest to charges of stealing from pre-need funeral plan funds. He served two months in jail.
More than 100 plaintiffs filed a 2004 civil suit against Diego, his wife and a daughter. The Diegos never answered the suit.
In 2008, a Honolulu judge ordered that each plaintiff be reimbursed $10,000 for the lost funeral plans, and assessed $2.7 million against each of the three Diegos in punitive damages, for a total sum of $9 million.
Then-Gov. Linda Lingle authorized a $142,000 payout by the state to the plaintiffs in 2009 to settle an allegation that the state failed to properly regulate the funeral home.
The attempted murder trial is expected to continue today.
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.